Off the Map
Parsons stood in a gravel parking lot at the end of a dirt road, tugging pack straps to adjust a sixty-pound load, studying the trail marker before taking the grassy path into the forest. That morning he’d been in urban traffic. Now he was alone. Map itineraries seem so authoritative compared to the cryptic words on trailhead signposts. Maps are rich in reassuring features and trail markers are sometimes actually clawed up by wild animals. The only other vehicle in the trailhead parking lot, besides Parsons’ car, was an old van with a jaunty air of neglect, its paint stained by acid rain, seemingly abandoned days ago, with torn candy-bar wrappers still on the seats and pretending not to care. Pennsylvania tags. Somebody else was on this trail somewhere anyway, maybe.
The clawed-up trail marker read “Dontgo 9 mi” next to a leafy footpath into a green shade. Every step of the way would be uphill or downhill. This was the northbound trail but, as often happens, by the compass it started out southeast. Naturally the trail would gradually turn north somewhere around the next spur. A quarter of a mile back up the road was the trailhead to Backswitch Creek, west of here. It had no parking lot. In five days he expected to come up the Backswitch Creek trail and return to this very spot, eighty miles from now. The Dontgo Trail went north all the way to Meems and that would be the next road he saw. According to the map Meems was actually a place, it had a gas station and a country store and he could get a cold soda before crossing Goaf Knob on the abandoned logging road to Nother, and reach the junction for the Backswitch Creek trail. It was not quite a circular hike he was planning, more like a deranged parallelogram—on the map.
To begin, you just start walking. Under the weight of the pack, for the first hour or so Parsons paid a lot of attention to his shoulders and the ground at the tip of his boots. But if your pack is balanced, if the pack frame is well designed, if the belt is right and you’re not carrying too much stuff, and if you are in fit condition, the initial sense that hiking is like work abates. When Parsons was over the first sweat, and stopped for a moment to look around, he saw the mountainside plunging away below him beneath a green canopy of hickories and maples and oaks, the trail now a winding tunnel, and above him a broken wall of white conglomerate sandstone. It was not a sunny day. The air was murky, the clouds nearby, the smell of lichens on rock rich and damp. There was nothing to remind him of a road, a car, a parking lot, nothing to remind him of anywhere but here.
That was why he came. Here was the new thing that mattered now—getting to Dontgo and the trail to Meems beyond it. The trail snaked below the crest of a ridge, running north for about thirty miles. According to the topographical map he could expect to cross a knob every couple of miles, but only one knob was more than three hundred feet higher than the saddles. These climbs were matched by gentle descents. It was already afternoon when Parsons started, stiff from driving and strained by the start of his vacation, but he felt fresher and more relaxed with each passing mile on the way to Dontgo. The weight of the pack was nothing compared to the weight he was leaving behind. He’d been anxious to get away on vacation. He was always a little unreasonably surprised to discover he’d done it. But here he was officially on vacation again. He was away. According to the map he was on the edge of the middle of nowhere.
He walked for another two hours, snuffing up the smells of the forest, appreciating the air. There was a wonderful cove where waist-high ferns covered acres of hillside in primordial acid green. There was a place where shafts of pale gray light cut across dun-colored cliffs like the rays from a cathedral window. Shelf fungi like weird orange ears protruded from rotting logs. It takes a certain amount of time to see past specific scenes and objects, to be entirely there, to see as much as he could of all that was around him. Then the sun began to set. Across the crest of the ridge the impending sunset was a wedge of inflamed purple sky under rapidly darkening layers of milky cocoa-blue cloud.
Parsons had not assumed Dontgo would be empty. He hoped it would be, but frequently other hikers show up at those kinds of places. If you meet anyone else, that’s usually where—a map-configured, named spot. As the day ended, Dontgo turned out to be a flat spur of ground off the trail where backpackers and others before them had camped for many years, years past reckoning, centuries maybe. The explanation was a small fast spring of cold water, something you wouldn’t pass up on a ridgeline trail like this. Parsons smelled wood smoke as he approached Dontgo. That meant people. Not lucky in that respect, he thought. There would be people.
Through the bushes he saw two dome tents like giant mushrooms, one yellow, the other blue and red. Damp white smoke rolled up between them. The clouds had claimed the knob he had just crossed. Dusk was at hand. Whether the night would be soggy or clear remained to be seen. As he walked into the clearing, four campers around the smoldering fire sprang up to face him, obviously startled. “Good evening,” he said. “Where’s the spring?”
“Excuse me,” one of the campers said. “I thought you were a bear.”
“The spring’s about twenty yards to the right. How many of you are there?”
“There’s only one of me,” Parsons answered.
The third camper self-consciously nodded but did not stand up. He was fiddling with a camp stove. Parsons walked past them, and heard their voices rise in campfire debate behind him. There were several nice fire rings to pick from. He unrolled a ground cloth and snapped his tent together. He hung his pack from a tree.
The spring was a rock-lined hollow beneath a flat rock. The spillover disappeared only a few feet from the little pool, but it was a fast spring, fast enough to ripple. Two good-sized salamanders were swimming in it, and there were probably a dozen more and just as many frogs lurking in the leaves, but amphibian piss doesn’t hurt the flavor of springwater. The water was cold and almost sweet.
Parsons lit his propane stove and boiled a quart of water and a couple of ounces of dried food. An electric lantern provided a good amount of light and gnats. Fifteen minutes later he was eating dinner, with his work done. He had one aluminum pan to wash, and one fork. It seemed like efficiency. In the woods his arrangements were simple, the right amount of food and shelter. He prided himself that all was done carefully and well, just enough and no extra, which was the meaning of style.
He forgave the other people for being there now. They were squawker types who discuss their options. That sort comes in parties of four. They did not sound as though they had mastered a plausible forest style. He felt relaxed, untroubled by life’s happenings, more relaxed than he’d been in months. Single bright stars appeared through gaps in the trees overhead as if the clouds were breaking up. Then as if to show he didn’t know a thing about it, fog welled up the mountainside like a rising tide and shut Dontgo in. He made notes in his trail log. ‘July 1st. Dontgo 9 mi., seemed less, bear track, x big knob; hardwoods: walnut, hickory. Gnats. Temp. 64F. Night fog.’
He had no intention of visiting his neighbors in the clearing, but they came to visit him; all of them, as if there was safety in numbers. While they took turns filling a plastic bladder, they invited him to come up to the fire for coffee. He did not really want to, but he did not especially want to refuse either. It was nice of them to ask, so he followed them back to their fire.
They turned out to be a variety of graduate students from Pittsburgh. Their gear included some expensive stuff, and some of it looked new, but it was well-designed expensive stuff. Their newer gear was the upgraded replacements for worn out gear, Parsons decided. Most of their junk was already up off the ground, with the food bags hung high and far off, though the students were still washing up from dinner. Sometimes, Parsons reflected, backpackers can be terrible snobs, especially about gear, and the solitary ones like himself were often the worst snobs, but in fairness to these students the evidence suggested they were seasoned backpackers. They might very well be ex-Boy-Scouts, though nothing BSA-residual was in view, not like ex-military backpackers who generally always have something infantry-flavored in plain sight somewhere, consciously or not. Just four well-smoked students.
That didn’t explain why they were nervous. Not much time had passed since something had scared them. Well, they had mentioned a bear. And come to think of it he had seen a paw print on the trail a mile south.
“Seen any wildlife?” Parsons asked.
“Raccoons. A whole bunch raided us last night.”
“They ran off with my chess set.”
“That’s too bad. They probably don’t even know how to play chess.”
“Yeah. Another one gnawed a hole in the other water bladder.”
“I saw a bear track a mile or so south,” Parsons said, “and there was some wildcat scat on the trail.”
“We haven’t had any bear trouble.”
“They say the Park Service restocked these woods with cougars from out west to build up the predator population.”
“That’s great, everybody needs more cougars.”
“What do you do for a living?” one of the students asked. “You don’t look like you’re still in school.”
“I’m an engineer in a glass factory in Baltimore,” Parson said. “That’s what I’ve been doing for almost five years. Hope it hasn’t aged me too much. This is what I do on vacations.”
“In West Virginia usually?”
“About half and half. I like it out west.”
“They’ll have us all working before we know it. Well, professionally, I mean. Everybody’s got some sort of job. Bartender, me.”
“I’m a flipping night watchman at a u-store-it. I’ve got a co-worker eighty years old. I sort of hope it’s not my real career.”
“Funny how you never meet any locals backpacking.”
“I love mountaineers. Montani semper liberi for sure. But I’ve never seen one more than a hundred yards from his pickup.”
“City people are way more footloose for some reason.”
“Now that’s a stereotype. It’s not city people. It’s some city people.”
“And yet it is possible that the natives spend most of their life within a hundred yards of their pickup.”
“Care for a smoke?” the fourth student suggested, producing a glass pipe.
“Hmmm,” Parsons said. “It’s been at least six months since I got high. I won’t say no. Thank you very much.” He accepted the pipe and took his turn four or five times as the glowing bowl went the rounds for the next several minutes, as the coffee boiled. His hosts, out of sheer etiquette, critiqued and downplayed the quality of the weed and apologized for the ordinariness of the pipe and assured him not to hope for much, the pro forma modesty required when blitzing a stranger with weed.
The fire had dried out a circle of ground, but it was a fire in a fog. It didn’t illuminate the clearing. The stuff in the pipe was of the Creeping Jesus variety, where it takes a while to realize just how whacked you actually are. The sound of the dripping trees got very loud. When they put the pipe up, Parsons felt he’d grown a circumference of sensory tentacles. He could almost hear the salamanders swimming back in the spring. It took some effort to make himself reach for his distant coffee cup. The coffee seemed almost ridiculously tasty. Really you had to laugh, coffee like that.
“Actually that’s great weed,” Parsons said.
“Yeah, it ain’t that bad.”
“We’ve been arguing though, we had no idea if this was the Dontgo trail or not until we actually got here. This map hasn’t done us any favors the last couple of days.” The student unfolded the standard park area map and glared at it as if he might throw it on the fire.
“Well,” Parsons said, “you’re right here.” He leaned forward to put his finger on the spot. The students leaned around to look.
“That’s what we thought. Well, we’re not lost now anyway. But by God, we were lost. We must have been—what do you think, Jack? We must have been back in here somewhere.”
“I don’t think so. Because there was that creek we kept crossing. We were probably a mile north of there.”
“Well, I can explain your problem,” Parsons said. “This map sucks. The edges are OK but the middle of it is all messed up. The scale is wrong. So the trail junctions aren’t where the map shows. It hasn’t been revised in twenty-five years and it wasn’t correct to start with.”
“We figured that much. See here where it shows the Backswitch Trail intersection at Nother. Well, it isn’t really there. There’s a kind of connector trail instead and the upper Backswitch Trail turns out to be pretty overgrown. It’s blazed but it’s so grown up the blazes are hard to spot.”
“Blue is a terrible blaze color. They should be using white.”
“We’ve been lost for two days. Hiked at least twenty miles.”
“The trail got a lot better and turned into a decent trail but it wasn’t blazed any more. Last night we stopped kidding ourselves. We weren’t on the Backswitch Trail.”
“Just another Fuck Me trail in Wetter Virginia.”
“Do you have a compass?” Parsons asked.
“Sure, but I’ll never trust it again.”
“Let me see it.”
He laid their compass next to his on the ground. Both pointed north. “It works now. Maybe there was some…you know…iron ore.”
“Anyway, we didn’t do too bad I guess. We figured we could hit the Dontgo Trail and come out at our van because that’s where we’re parked anyway.”
“Well see,” Parsons said, “you’ve got the U.S. park map, but we’re not in the park. This is all state forest. In my experience this map’s OK for road features and the blazed trails in the park. But it is old. I’ve never been on the Dontgo Trail before. I’ve only been to Nother once. So I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be the first time something was off scale about the park map. You can square it with the USGS quadrangle maps and get a lot more precise. But the Dontgo Quad hasn’t been resurveyed since the Korean War and the hiking trails mostly aren’t on it. Dontgo is on it though. So you can see where you are.”
“Meems,” one of the students said. “I told you we ought to go through Meems.”
“In retrospect but it made sense at the time.”
“So that’s your van at the Dontgo trailhead?” Parsons asked.
“Yes. Our other vehicle is at Deception Falls. Dropped the van off, drove to Deception Falls, should get back to the van tomorrow.”
“I like having a vehicle at both ends but you can’t go alone that way,” Parsons said. “These are some rough hills to hike through alone. How long are you out for?”
“Doesn’t it worry you to hike by yourself out here?”
“No. There’s nothing dangerous in these mountains. You might be dangerous to yourself if you forget what you’re doing. The biggest animal hereabouts is the black bear. They’re so shy you’d be lucky to see one.”
“Snakes mind their own business pretty well.”
“Taste like chicken they say.”
“There’s some goddamn big birds, though.”
“That wasn’t any bird.”
Parsons waited for an explanation.
“That was a fucking owl, man.”
“Owls are not rare.”
“Come on, don’t tell this guy a bunch of shit now.”
“You can call me an asshole if you want.”
Parsons threw a stick on the fire and all four of them jumped.
“So here’s a question,” Parsons said. “You came in through Nother.”
“Sure, we went through Nother two days ago.”
“And there’s a trail south of Goaf Knob that connects Backswitch Creek to Dontgo.”
“There is a second trail and it’s not on this map.”
“I told you that was that creek.”
“There must actually be two creeks.”
“Anyway, that’s how we got here.”
“I wouldn’t go back that way for ten thousand dollars. That was the creepiest damn hole I ever saw. It was not pleasant, man.”
“It was the wildest place I ever saw.”
“This is the forest primeval, Hiawatha.”
“Big, big trees. Wow.”
“Where exactly were you, at that point?” Parsons asked, suddenly more interested.
“Don’t ask us, man, we can’t agree.”
“I kind of liked it.”
“Liked it? Back where we had lunch you said you hated it.”
“I swear to God, you go bushwhacking from a sense of adventure and this is what happens. It takes all damn day. It looks like it ought to be like three miles and apparently it’s more like twelve miles, and somewhere around four o’clock you realize you can’t really go back and nobody agrees where you are and you start to get a little panicky.”
“I wouldn’t go back that way for ten thousand dollars.”
“The fuck you wouldn’t. You’d go back for ten dollars. You’d go back and look for it if you dropped your lucky roach clip.”
“So you came out on the Dontgo Trail after four o’clock this afternoon. So this unmarked trail that apparently goes to Goaf Knob, how far is it, an hour north of here?”
“Less than two hours.”
“Well,” Parsons said. “I wonder where you were. I think I’ll stick to Meems and Goaf Knob but a good undeveloped side trail—those can be really interesting. It sounds like you guys stumbled over a pretty impressive pocket of old-growth forest too.”
This remark was greeted by silence.
“Well, thanks for the buzz and the coffee,” Parsons said. “You won’t get lost again.”
“I’m going to get a set of those quad maps.”
“You’ll never regret it.”
Parsons walked back to his tent. The fog was solid and he walked slowly. The campfire was a rosy patch in the air behind him and nothing had a shape, but he had a flashlight to shine at his feet. He could hear the guys murmuring earnestly behind him. ‘We should have told him, Jack.’—‘Told him what?’—‘…make a fool out of yourself…’—‘…fucking owl…’
He found his tent and undid the flaps. The outside was beaded with water. Inside it was dry. There were no bugs that night. Owls were tough on greenhorns. Especially screech owls. They could scream like a banshee or worse; they could also make a hoarse kind of scraping roar that can freeze your blood. Not bad for a bird the size of your fist.
The next morning he stayed at the spring long enough to fill his water bottles and boil tea. Yesterday’s clouds were gone. Last night’s stone was gone. The woods glittered wetly. He had slept well. The pack felt more natural and less like a curse when he put it on. On the other side of the clearing the two tents were still zipped shut and he heard snores, intense snores like rusty saws.
The trail wound up the next knob. As he left the saddle, the spine of white rock he had been following since yesterday appeared again to his left, a row of boulders and then a jagged wall. The wall grew until it towered over the trail. The trail passed through a gateway in the rock and up a natural staircase in the next big tilted lens of conglomerate sandstone. Though these knobs were gentle, the elevation was higher now and this knob was spruce-crowned at the top. He paused and looked back along the tiers of stone, the ranks of black trees embedded in brilliant green moss, the sharp edge of the cliff and the deep blue sky beyond.
The trail dipped into a circular hollow verged by massive leaning blocks, some with crosspieces, and all swathed in a solid growth of moss inches thick. There’s no real word for such places. You only believe them when you see them. In the center of the hollow a single chest-high cube sat athwart the trail like an altar stone. Driven into the ground next to it was what looked like the rotting stump of a standard brown forest service signpost. The stump was deeply clawed. On the west side of this dell, flat mossy stones led up like a steps.
This, Parsons assumed, was the trail the graduate students had stumbled on. It ran west. There was nothing on the map to suggest it. Nameless, numberless and badly marked, it had the greater charm—unknown, unforeseen, and rumored to be the haunt of wild terrifying owls. Parsons climbed the steps from the shadow of the altar stone.
This led directly to the pinnacle of the knob, a windswept crow’s nest just above the tops of the spruce. He looked north and south along the backbone of the ridge, west and east at parallel ranges, down at the boxed-in valleys. There wasn’t a road or a roof in sight, and the barest suggestion of passable gaps on the most distant horizons. Nothing on the maps reflected the reality of this lost quadrangle of the Mother of Rivers, or hinted at the existence of this view, a soul-defying beauty, a rejection of witness, almost a denial of time.
Of course what he saw matched the topo map, matched it pretty well, probably to within a foot or two. There was the unmarked trail below him. It was not overgrown. Parsons decided to sample this trail. If it went on as it began, he thought, it might be worth following all the way down. Some of the most amazing spots in the Monongahela are hidden like that. If you did not seek you never would find. He started down, following the abrupt twists downhill. He did not have to watch his feet skim the ground. The mountainside unfolded around him until he saw the hollows and stone stacks and invading groves of rock-gripping spruce from above, from beneath, from all around, like a creature with compound eyes, with a circular visual field; the trail beneath him a faint path among the stones, and himself striding down it with giant steps. He was a tiny distant figure on a giant’s eroded causeway, a hundred feet below, and he watched himself go for several seconds until he realized with a shock that it was impossible to watch himself from above this way.
Shock is usually a euphemism. Maybe panic was a better word. He was not above the ground as much as not there at all. He could say he was inside the world viewing it as the inner surface of some surrounding globe, but it was just as accurate to say he was outside it. In effect terrifying because neither perspective was possible. Parsons broke out in a sweat and as soon the sweat of terror ran across his skin, he found himself on the trail again. He hadn’t missed a step. As if nothing had happened, he continuing picking his way steadily down the steep trail. It was just as well. His mind was disarranged for a moment, gathering itself into a primitive thought, something along the lines of “what was that?”
It was as if something had driven his consciousness out of his body. No, there was no ‘as if.’ His consciousness had slipped out of his carcass like a hand slipping out of an old floppy glove, and the freedom of view that had come with it was so thrilling, the old glove was vibrating from shock now that the hand was back inside.
Nothing in his experience had prepared him for that. Though he felt curiously invulnerable at the moment, a cautious streak in his personality spoke up, wondering if it was good to be rushing down a strange mountainside at that moment. But the trail was shallowing out now. The spruce had given over to a broad spur of hardwoods and the difference in elevation from the top of the ridge was, he might guess, probably 800 feet.
Parsons stopped. He checked his watch. It was two in the afternoon. That was incredible. It should have been about eleven o’clock. He took off his pack and checked the compass. The compass needle pointed directly at the sun, hanging over the opposite ridge. So the sun was going down in the north now. Looking uphill he saw only a wall of trees. In front of him, he could get a glimpse of a black slope on the other side of the valley, but the piece he saw was easily five hundred feet higher than where he was, and it was not the top. Ahead, the trail went on at a shallow angle. Though the footpath was still easy to see, the customary paint lozenges marking surveyed trail routes were not there. He’d been going so fast and so obliviously, he couldn’t easily say he would have noticed any unmarked trail junctions or deviations. Deviation was a good word for his compass too.
Under these circumstances navigation requires thought. The peaks and ridges that seem so informative from above look considerably different when seen from the valleys. On the kitchen table, a map represents a landscape as if seen from above. On a ridge trail or from a peak where you can see for miles, the topography is easily understood as the dip and strike across an imaginary bisected plane, across the grain of the map so to speak. From below, down in the hollows, the bit of ridge he could see was as likely to be a shoulder as the main ridge, an apparent peak was perhaps just an outlying knob, the land immediately around him would match some particular square inch of contour on the map but it was not glaringly obvious which square inch that might be, and it would certainly have been more comforting to have a working compass.
Having such an obviously rational and familiar argument with himself was also comforting, though. He sat down, drank some water and ate some dried fruit. Thinking matters over, he decided there was nothing very disturbing about his situation except the fact that this was not a marked trail, and it would have been better to pay more attention to the route. But the trail was plain enough. It almost certainly went somewhere. Though nothing suggested it was used very often, his pals of the night before had just passed through here the day before. It would be pretty interesting to come out somewhere in the vicinity of Nother, and be somehow west of Goaf Knob. It wasn’t the itinerary he started with but it might be a better one. He could head down Backswitch Creek if it was as beautiful as this. He could cut over Goaf Knob to Meems if that seemed better. He could come out at Meems and do the north end of the Dontgo Trail and come back through Dontgo, if he wanted to. All of this assumed the bottom of this hole was actually Backswitch Creek. But, as the onset of a sensibly depressed thought, he realized he did not think that was true after all.
Those maps again. He’d made fun of the errant park map with the mismarked trail. On the far more accurate topo, he could find the approximate spot of the altar stone, the map was safe for that, and the unmarked side trail would then be obliged to run down the flank of the ridge exactly thus, until the shoulders of the ridges blocked the view of the top in all four directions, and then … It couldn’t really be three o’clock. There wasn’t room for it. This valley had to be Backswitch Creek and yet, it wasn’t going to be.
He went on more cautiously, alert for blazes. He was well down toward the foot of the ridge. The hollow was a dark place, overgrown with dense stands of rhododendron, and the trail became a tunnel. He had to stoop as he walked. The sound of rushing water off to his right gave him some confidence in the map. The water grew louder and soon he was following a clattering freshet across broken mossy plates of sandstone.
In a way the footpath or trail had ceased to exist. This was what the old-timers used to call a classic “rhododendron hell.” It seemed blocked in six out of eight directions wherever you looked. Wherever you looked there seemed to be a tunnel leading off through the rhodos as if that was the trail. The freshet poured down the mountainside in three or four channels through a boulder bed thickly furred with moss, under a double canopy of rhododendrons and beech trees, and it was safe to say there was no path through this. He picked his way along the slippery creek for half a mile. It was easy to see how the students had lost the trail in here–there were no markings, you couldn’t see more than twenty yards in any direction, you couldn’t see the sky either, and the compass didn’t work. No doubt they had followed the water uphill to its source, which would lead roughly to the trail if you bore to the right and uphill until you struck it. Then it would be simple enough to get to the ridge top but it would be a canny navigator indeed who still knew where he was. And that was Parsons’ situation now, only heading the other way. He would come out, unless he broke a leg, which would be fatal in here, but when he came out it would not be obvious where he really was until he got a reading on some recognizable feature.
The lower reaches of all this running water began to converge into a real stream, soon dropping into a gorge, the sort of drop that generally leads to a waterfall. One seeks these things out because they are so compelling and beautiful but if he technically was not still on a trail, a sedate woodland creek might be more comfortable. The woods here were somber and dank and wild, obstructed by deadfall. The rhodos persisted but the thicket of little adventitious beeches above them gave over to hemlocks, some of them quite huge. Everything dripped; and the moss grew over it in an inviolate carpet, shrouding even the trunks of the trees.
There the channels joined and the stream became a wide shallow trough of white stone, swept nearly clean, beneath a foot of clear whiskey-colored water. All else, even the light, was green; but there were many greens, from the near-black of rhododendrons and hemlock to the near-white of ferns. There was certainly no trail here and no good way to climb up out of this gorge. He picked his way down the shallow creek, stepping into the water when he had to, beneath banks too slippery to climb. The stone was ribbed and patterned with fronds and trunks of ancient fossil trees, club mosses and ferns turned to stone and flecked with coal. For scores of millions of years this hollow had been a very wet place on the shores of a lagoon. Mountains had risen, forests had overgrown them; then the mountains had been worn down, mountains made of forest; and nothing had changed here, you could swear the same ferns still grew, the same water flowed beneath them. Time was a circle; or else it did not move at all here.
The creek flowed easily between green stacks of dripping stone to join a larger stream below a small waterfall. The waterfall threw out a tongue of broken stream rock and in the angle of this riprap there was a sandy spot that seemed made to camp on. Overhead a swatch of sky looked impossibly bright and far up. Below this spot there was now a full river growling along, grinding its bones in a bed of silt. The compass swung meaninglessly. Direction was based on instinct now. Bright as his glimpse of open sky was, that sky was only twilight; some star or planet stood in it, swimming in purple air. He was at the bottom of a funnel and the walls of the gorge already reflected the coming night. Night seemed to rise out of the ground rather than fall from above. Most of the sound was echo, increasingly loud, as if the lost light was being converted to noise.
The place was murkily beautiful; but it was also in some way terrifying. The hair prickled on his neck. He would be utterly trapped by the dark down here, and there he would stay until dawn released him—only a few hours of darkness, but it already felt like a sentence of years and would grow longer. He couldn’t understand his confusion about what time it was.
There were many shades of black in the hole he had entered, and some of the dark masses were already beginning to creep. He pitched his tent at the back of the sandy beach performed the all-too-brief domestic tasks of boiling water and hanging his pack, but the pleasure had gone out of it. For one thing, every object in his kit now seemed slightly unfamiliar. Obviously this was all his own stuff but not to the touch, so to speak. It was like his own stuff but it didn’t properly belong to him now. The blue propane fire gleamed balefully and the food was tasteless and hard to swallow. He didn’t really feel like himself either, somehow. He decided he needed a nice cheerful fire for his foundering morale so he gathered some damp wood with the help of his flashlight; but the narrow sickly beam threw ugly shadows. He struck up a small, smoky fire that felt all wrong too, another mistake.
And there he sat. It was not much later than nine o’clock. Even with the fire, he felt cold. Fear was building in him like an electric charge. His brain wanted to tell him that the fear was in the gorge around him, and that his own little terror was no bigger than a button compared to the native horror of this spot. But he consciously rejected that notion. He couldn’t decide what was bothering him. He was the veteran of uncounted nights of back country camping and much of it had been done alone. He should have been thrilled.
It’s just me, he thought. I don’t know why, the forest is neutral, there is nothing to be afraid of in wood and water and stone, darkness is only the absence of light, nothing here cares about me, nothing in the woods really eats people, calm down.
It didn’t work. There was something in the hollow, building up like a battery being charged. The process was not rapid. Neither was it reversible. Eventually he began to shiver, watching his fire turn to embers.
Parsons had backpacked in much wilder places and places with more real risk. He remembered an icy caldera in British Columbia where the snow pack was a permanent thing. He remembered the stupendous horizons in northern Idaho, and reminded himself that nothing around here was supposed to be as dangerous to the unprepared or as nakedly impressive as the Utah canyon mazes, and that if it came to “how far is it to the nearest person” he wasn’t personally likely to top the wendigo country in northern Ontario, which still seemed to be nursing an honest grudge left over from the last couple of Ice Ages. But this train of thought didn’t actually work as the invigorating recollection of past triumphs it was meant to be. It only reminded him how westerners always stare at you in polite disbelief if you make any claims for mountains in the east. He’d always defended the eastern ranges. The Adirondacks will kick your butt. The North Carolina highlands will make you say “I never knew.” The Monongahela trails are like the roots of their own rhododendrons, tough, twisted, unforgiving. You won’t take West Virginia lightly twice.
He wasn’t taking it lightly now. The river was a jumbled mass of roaring sound, with a hollow boom behind it that could have been mountains collapsing. The waterfall, not more than fifteen feet high, now sounded enormous. The narrow patch of sky grew pale and soon a three-quarters waning moon appeared in it, throwing a corpse-white swath of reflected light across the river. Fringing the beam, spiky silhouettes of hemlock nodded. And there was another sound, something new he thought, if it was really there, a flap-flap like a tarpaulin come unhitched in the wind—or like wings.
There came upon him an urge to run away, to abandon his gear and find the side-stream and climb up it on his hands and knees in the dark until he was out of this hollow, if that was what it took to get away. He forced that urge down, because that impulse would literally kill him, but the debate in his mind went on—get away from the fire at least, or put it out—but he would not do that either, he would rather have built it into a roaring blaze. But if he threw much more wet wood on, it would go out by itself.
Then the overwhelmingly wrong-seeming idea, ‘Walk down into the moonlight,’ took over his will, and he found he had to obey.
But the river howled with laughter, because he could not walk. He went on hands and knees; he dragged himself to the edge of the river, and stared up at the face of the moon.
And he saw what he saw. Poised at the lip of the waterfall, lit by moon glow, was something he took at first glance to be some kind of angel. Its black cerements fluttered gently, its crescent wings slowly fanned, its arms outspread toward him; but it had no head.
The headless pair of mighty wings floated up while he watched and drifted across the gorge, vanishing in shadow against the woods across the river. The thing went slowly, slower than a bird.
He could not distinguish the water roaring in the gorge from the roaring of his own blood in his ears. The darkness was now absolute, as if he had been blinded. There was a smell, an acrid electrical stink like a burnt-out motor. Parsons backed into the crevice between two boulders, and he stuck there. Not to exist, to have never existed, to be nowhere, suddenly seemed better than to be where he was.
It wasn’t really much like fear, or what he would have called fear. Each second was unspeakable. Once in a very long while, many seconds later, his breath would hiss. Even between these rocks he felt utterly exposed. He couldn’t see anything but a stripe of paler darkness. From time to time a wave of shaking cold would rush over him and leave a dew of sweat. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and found he was drooling. It ought to have been hilarious but he seemed to have entirely lost his sense of humor. Parsons had one last intelligible thought, stuffed there in his sandstone cleft—he knew, he felt sure, he would not wake up again.
Perhaps strangest of all, there came a time when the strip of light turned dove gray. It was dawn. He could come out now. The waterfall in the early light was even more beautiful, but drenched in fear. Parsons turned his head slowly, stiff and still terrified, looked around at the hemlock deadfall, at the spikes and spires of the surrounding trees. For there to be light here, the sun must have risen an hour or more ago. His tent was surprisingly close. The pack hung untouched from the rope he’d slung across an overhanging branch. His sleeping bag was still rolled up. All his stuff was only a few feet away.
He changed his soaked clothes, broke down the tent, and stowed his gear. He was utterly tired, and yet he had no appetite. The dysfunctional compass and the inaccuracy of the map distressed him. He took out the map again and stared at it and wondered why he was looking at it when the most important thing was to run.
Never, thought Parsons, have I been this completely messed up in my life. He had some idea he’d seen something he couldn’t really find a way to describe, even to himself. He’d lost control of his feelings and couldn’t describe that either.
There was no indication of a trail going forward. As far as he knew, he was miles down in a hole and there was really no trail leading to this spot behind him; he had come down the creek bed. If he followed the creek bed back up the mountainside, it would split off into streamlets and he could bear to the right as far uphill as practical until he stopped hearing water. At that point he could hope it would seem more obvious how to find the unblazed trail, the one that wasn’t on the map. Based on yesterday, assuming his watch was still working as it seemed to be, if he just went back the way he came it might take as much as five or six hours to reach the summit of the main north-south ridge and the Dontgo Trail.
He began by pulling himself up the mountainside through the dim rhododendron glade, past a very large cedar tree, up the stream bed with its fossil-bearing sandstone, reaching the first split in the stream much sooner than he expected. Indeed this freshet was bearing less water than the night before, it seemed. Here already, and not a hundred yards from where he camped, was the beech grove that covered the springs at the head of the side creek he’d followed. With the same excess of doubt he remembered from the day before, he could not convince himself he was retracing his steps. He could not even measure the angle of deviation. But quite soon there was no stream on his left. Above him was the shoulder of the spur and it was a comparatively easy walk out of the beech and into the hickories, and there in fact was the unmarked trail, atop the spur as it should be, complete with a heel print, not his, probably from one of the students he’d met at Dontgo. It was, simply, right there in front of him and he felt a little bit like capering around in hysterical delight.
The trail proper bore off to the south. It was clear what had happened. He had walked straight on at this turn in the trail and wound up in that little hollow. And that was all it was, a little hollow. In the winter, with the leaves down, from this spot on the trail you could probably see the little waterfall where he camped. It was as close as that.
He felt better now, more rational, but decided to push up the trail as fast as he could. It was a lovely little creek but he was sure he could find one he liked better. He never wanted to be down there again. He would not be alone. He was not alone now.
Parsons couldn’t remember ever being so distressed about a map problem before. It wasn’t as if it mattered where he was. He was on vacation. But sometimes there’s just no answer to these things. You go off to the woods and boil over like an overheated radiator, and the squirrels don’t care. It would be nice to discover that the rock stacks he could see a quarter of a mile up the hill were actually the cap rock on the main ridge, and then he thought it would be hard to explain if they weren’t, and then he realized that was the summit of the main ridge. He was soon at the unmarked junction on the Dontgo Trail. Down the mossy stairs was the block of sandstone he’d thought of as an altar stone.
Yes, there it was, an authentic prehistoric footpath, probably in continuous use for about ten thousand years. There might very well be nobody using it today but him. His watch said it was ten o’clock in the morning and that was what the sky looked like. The compass pointed to magnetic north like it was expected to.
He heard the sighing of the spruce and the mewing of birds, and felt the wind run through the shadows in the pale blue. Over here even the sound of your own footsteps sometimes becomes mysterious. An hour before, he wouldn’t have tried to guess what he would do when he got back to the Dontgo Trail. Here he was. It was such a relief, what he decided simply didn’t matter nearly as much now.
Even so, Parsons felt worn out. I didn’t get much sleep, he thought. He wasn’t sure he should go on to Meems. He remembered a very spooky shadow the night before in the moonlight, though he no longer credited his memory with what you might call scientific accuracy, and wondered if it meant anything. Are there signs and portents in the world? Well, yes and no, or perhaps. If asked “What did you see?” he would have to answer, “I’m not sure.” But he also wouldn’t make it to Meems before dark, not on this map. It was too far now. That was not a perhaps.
And Backswitch Creek—that hadn’t been Backswitch Creek down there, and he felt the most assured reluctance to get any closer again than he was now. In fact he could easily walk back to his car and drive over to Seneca and regroup in the campground. Obviously he could do that. That seemed a brilliant, a liberating thought. The worst thing that could happen, he’d wind up between two RVs and one would run an air conditioner and the other would play a TV. He could live with it for one night anyway. He was an hour from the spring at Dontgo, the perfect spot for a quick trail brunch, and he would be back at his car well before dark, well before it.